The most important lesson with Tokyo, one that many of us tend to learn the hard way, is that it’s best not to get too attached. For all the talk about “old meets new” in the tourism campaigns, the capital treats physical remnants of its past with the same reverence that Marie Kondo has for household clutter.
In this ever-mutating metropolis, the Imperial Palace and the shrines and temples wedged between office blocks are the only things that are truly sacred. Everything else is negotiable. Like an aging movie star, the city is constantly finding excuses to have some “work” done: a little nip and tuck here, a few extra skyscrapers there.
During the 2010s, ambitious redevelopment projects have reshaped Tokyo, intent on smoothing out imperfections that had once seemed an intrinsic part of the landscape. From Toranomon to Musashi-koyama, entire blocks have been razed, as the last few relics of a scruffier postwar past gave way to gleaming, aspirational high-rises.
However much you accept the “nothing stays the same” credo, it’s hard to get excited about the creeping shopping mall vibe that’s overtaking the city. The model of redevelopment favored by planners is generally more akin to a hostile takeover bid, creating frictionless commercial spaces while often erasing the qualities that made an area worth visiting in the first place.
The city’s successful bid to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games has acted as an accelerant for its various self-improvement projects, many of which feel like they’re being done as much for the benefit of visitors as residents. Cynics may note that the construction fever has sucked up resources that might better have been spent rebuilding areas devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. But as far as developers are concerned, Tohoku just isn’t as sexy as Tokyo.
At the same time, the capital has been transformed by the massive influx of overseas visitors who now descend on Japan every year — and Tokyo, in particular. Inbound tourism more than quadrupled between 2012 and 2017, and the effects are noticeable pretty much everywhere you turn.
Shibuya’s famed scramble crossing has morphed into a gauntlet of tourists posing for snaps, ecstatic to be visiting the real-life location of “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Pay ¥2,000 at the new Shibuya Sky observation deck and you can peer down on them from a 229-meter height, which scientists have determined is the minimum safe distance for beholding the horror of it all.
Aspects of the city that were once impenetrable to anyone not well-versed in the language and culture are now accessible to all, give or take the odd dodgy translation. In most cases, this is a good thing, though there’s a special place in hell for whoever decided it was necessary to render the incessant public service announcements in English.
The idea of somewhere staying off the radar now seems quaint. Like pretty much everywhere else on the planet, the abundance of online information has opened up the city, turning even antiquated coffee houses and snooty Ginza cocktail bars into well-trafficked tourist destinations.
Old-timers report back from familiar haunts with the pained look of war correspondents returning from the front: Golden Gai has fallen to the hordes! Nakamise Shopping Street is only bearable after the stores close! Takeshita-dori was never bearable to start with!
Away from the main hubs, Tokyo’s neighborhoods have been spared the worst of the onslaught, and are still one of the city’s biggest assets. Even as chain stores edge out independent businesses and gentrification becomes the norm, many areas have managed to retain a distinct identity.
Residents will argue about the relative merits of Nakameguro or Koenji, Shimokitazawa or Sangenjaya, but it’s a pointless exercise. As everyone secretly knows, the best neighborhood is the one you can get home from without having to change trains.
Nevertheless, some areas have commanded more attention than others during the 2010s. These are the neighborhoods that defined Tokyo during the decade, along with the archetypes you could expect to find in each.
Shibuya: The Partier
Tokyo’s brief experiment with all-night buses earlier in the decade was doomed from the start, thanks to the inexplicable decision to run the trial between Shibuya and Roppongi. Never mind that the areas were only a short taxi ride away — the ‘Pong was also losing its status as the capital’s de facto destination for a sloppy night out. Already Tokyo’s buzziest neighborhood, Shibuya has now become the playground of choice for the international party crowd. Gaudy clubs have proliferated, while former dance-music strongholds have gone steeply downmarket. Once a temple for techno snobs, Womb became a place where “Who’s the DJ tonight?” was a perfectly acceptable question (as was the obvious answer: “Who cares?”). Halloween, New Year’s Eve and the occasional FIFA World Cup victory provided excuses for mass celebrations on Shibuya crossing, but every day feels like a party here.
Shimokitazawa: The Johnny-Come-Lately
Few places have been given as dramatic a facelift during the 2010s as Shimokitazawa. The former domain of indie rockers and shaggy bohemian types is now well on its way to becoming the next Daikanyama, as a project to bury the overground Odakyu railway line metastasized into a deluxe overhaul of the entire neighborhood. By the time developers announced they were opening a hot-spring resort just along the line, it was hard to know what to think anymore. Yet some people seemed not to get the memo that “Shimo” had lost its edge: Vogue placed it at the top of its “Coolest Neighborhoods in the World” list in 2014, oblivious that the ship had already sailed, or perhaps sunk.
Koenji: The Protester
The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster galvanized a variety of popular protest movements, and none was more potent than the one that emerged from Koenji, the black sheep of the JR Chuo line. The neighborhood held the first major anti-nuclear demonstration, and it was so big that even the police were caught off-guard. They wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Subsequent marches organized by the local Shiroto no Ran (Amateur Revolt) collective were given such heavy-handed treatment by the authorities, the movement quickly lost its momentum. But you can’t keep a good anarcho-punk down for long, and a planned road expansion project — together with the threat of encroaching gentrification — has inspired Koenji’s refuseniks to take to the streets again.
Kiyosumi-Shirakawa: The Caffeine Fiend
The artisanal coffee buzz has worn off a little now, but for a brief period in the 2010s, there were few more juiced-up day-trip destinations than Kiyosumi-Shirakawa. When Blue Bottle Coffee opened a roastery in this traditionally working-class hood in 2015, it inspired the kind of wait times you’d expect at Tokyo Disneyland. Magazines touted the fun you could have touring the area’s multiple coffee shops — fun that tended to subside once you hit your third cup of the day, and the jitters kicked in.
Nakameguro: The Professional Millennial
At the turn of the decade, some were already predicting the demise of “Nakame” as a bastion of hipster chic. But while the annual cherry blossom festival has been well and truly tapped out, the area hasn’t lost its appeal to savvy young professionals. It helps that the redevelopment in Nakameguro has generally kept in line with the aspirations of the locals — even its new, Kengo Kuma-designed Starbucks Reserve Roastery is an exquisitely tasteful tourist trap. Many of the other highlights still require some digging: that secret bar that everyone actually knows about, or the dreamy brunch spot that only advertises on Instagram. Other stops along the Tokyu Toyoko Line, notably Yutenji and Gakugei-Daigaku, have also been basking in the glow, and will probably become the next go-to spot when Nakameguro finally peaks.
Akihabara: The Idolater
This past decade hasn’t been kind to Tokyo’s Electric Town. After otaku culture went mainstream in the 2000s, curious day-trippers rushed in to Akihabara, upsetting the fragile geek ecosystem. The specialist electronics stores that gave the neighborhood its sobriquet have thinned out, while longstanding plans to make “Akiba” an IT hub have resulted in it coming to resemble every other office district in Tokyo. But this was also the birthplace of the idol boom that peaked in the mid-2010s. While local heroes AKB48 ruled the pop charts, the area served as a breeding ground for scores of “underground” idol groups whose appeal was always going to be more selective. The impending closure of AKB48 Cafe may feel like the end of an era, but perhaps it just shows that Akihabara’s idol fans are going back to their roots.
Nakano: The Discerning Geek
With Akihabara going mainstream, some otaku chose to take their business elsewhere. One of the preferred haunts has been Nakano Broadway, a retro shopping mall dating back to the 1960s, which now teems with stores catering to a broad spectrum of subcultural obsessions. As the 2010s wore on, it offered a nostalgic retreat from the changes happening in Akiba. The building received a dusting of celebrity cool when artist Takashi Murakami opened a cafe there in 2013, though the growing number of luxury watch shops may be a better indication of where Broadway’s future lies. Then again, having recently been flagged as an earthquake risk, the complex may not have much of a future left. As with so many things in Tokyo, it’s best to enjoy it while it lasts.
Shin-Okubo: The [Insert Nationality]
No neighborhood has offered a window into Japan’s relationship with mainland Asia like Shin-Okubo. During the so-called Hanryu (Korean Wave) boom of the previous decade, the streets were bustling, but they became eerily quiet after a territorial dispute erupted between Japan and South Korea in 2012. The neighborhood was also briefly a battleground for demonstrations by the anti-Korean hate group Zaitokukai, whose presence hasn’t been missed so much. With Girls’ Generation now a distant memory, many of the K-pop boutiques have been replaced by Halal food stores, and you’re more likely to hear Vietnamese than Korean — a testament to the size and influence of what’s now the city’s third largest ethnic minority group. Shin-Okubo still feels like nowhere else in the rest of Tokyo, just … different.
Somewhere in East Tokyo: The Pioneer
Everyone loves to feel like they’re ahead of the pack. Throughout the 2010s, various parts of the city were touted as the next big thing, even if this generally amounted to them having a gallery, an artisanal coffee shop and a bar with a couple of craft beers on tap. At the turn of the decade, trend-setters were pinning their hopes on the wholesale clothier district around Bakurocho, confusingly dubbed Central East Tokyo. The opening of Tokyo Skytree in 2012 sent a ripple of excitement through the surrounding area, though it would take more than a gargantuan TV antenna to make Kinshicho cool. More recently, tastemakers were insisting that Kuramae, a former warehouse district just downriver from Asakusa, was having its moment. None of it amounted to much, though at least we’ll always have the memories of some very underwhelming day-trips.